Conquering the Skyline Divide with My Son

Whenever my son, who lives in New York, comes home for a visit, we take a hike together.  He misses the green of the Northwest and coming home gives him a chance to get a ‘nature’ fix.  In summers past, we have gone up to nearby Mount Baker and usually set out on one of the trails from Artist’s Point, the highest point to which you can drive and open for only a short period of time from late July to early October.  This year, however, my son requested that we find a different trail for our annual outing.

After conferring with a friend who hikes the area frequently with the local Mount Baker Club, we settled on the Skyline Divide Trail. The trail is, according to the National Forest website, one of the most popular hikes in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest although it’s recommended for more experienced hikers.

The road to the trailhead is rugged and follows Glacier Creek much of the way.
The road to the trailhead is rugged and follows Glacier Creek much of the way.

The two-mile trail up is quite steep (and harder on the knees going down than climbing up) but well-kept. I might add the mostly unpaved road to the trailhead parking lot, off the Glacier Creek Road turn-off, can be rough and, as we discovered, full of humps.  Next time I’m taking an SUV or a car that sits higher off the ground than my own.

But the rocky ride up is well worth it, as are the aching calf muscles on the hike up.  As my friend put it: “When you think you can’t keep going, just do because when you get to the top you feel like you should be wearing a drindl skirt.”  Of course, what she was referring to was that famous scene from the film, “The Sound of Music” in which actress Julie Andrews, as Maria von Trapp, swirls in an alpine flowered meadow against a spectacular mountain backdrop. I myself had experienced that feeling and scenery years ago on my first trip to Salzburg, Austria and was anxious to see how this one would compare.  The Skyline Divide trail was much more strenuous than the easy walk I made from my Austrian gasthaus. But the thought of a splendid alpine meadow view of the mountain without flying thousands of miles to Europe, was enough to keep me pushing.  Hiking sticks are a definite plus as well.

Nearly like a scene from the film, ‘The Sound of Music,’ the majestic Mount Shushan rises behind a hiker taking in the view from atop Skyline Divide.

It helped that a couple of hikers on their way down told us that we were “close”, even when we really weren’t.  Nevertheless,  when we reached the top, the view was breath-taking, in more way than one.  Upon rounding the last switch back, we came into an expansive alpine meadow still bursting in color from the summer wildflowers and a view, that while not the same as the rugged Swiss Alps, was equally as gorgeous.  Mount Baker’s glacier-covered peak rose in the near distance, and seemed not that far from reach. To the north, stretched a view of the Canadian Cascades.  It made for a perfect spot to eat the snacks that we had carried along.  Several other hikers joined us on the day we were there, taking in the powerful mountain panorama set against the late afternoon brilliant blue sky. One woman, a volunteer for the Cascades Butterfly Project,  gathered a few curious hikers around her as she explained her mission to count the Lucia’s Blue butterflies, Celestrina lucia, that flutter about there.  She showed the onlookers one of the delicate beauties that she had caught in her net before releasing it back into the air.

A volunteer with the Cascades Butterfly Project shows her 'catch' to hikers.
A volunteer with the Cascades Butterfly Project shows her ‘catch’ to hikers.

Just as blue as the butterfly were the subalpine lupines that covered the mountainsides.  By now, I’m sure they have all disappeared, along with all the other bright wildflowers, as the autumn color takes over.  The trail continues on from this meadow another 1.5 miles, which we did not do this time, and then another less maintained path up Chowder Ridge goes on from there.  A number of backpackers were making their way on up, planning to spend the night and catch a spectacular view of the night sky.

We lingered for about hour, breathing in the fresh mountain air, relaxing in the warm sun and chatting with other hikers.  It’s a time with my son that I treasure because it’s just us, the mountain and the meadow. There are no distractions at the top, no cell phone service, no Internet, nothing but nature.  We talk without interruption. Or just stay silent together. At 5 o’clock, we decided to start back down although I could have easily stayed another hour or two.

The snow-capped summit of Mount Baker is the prominent peak  on the Skyline Divide and makes a breath-taking  backdrop for my son's picture.
The snow-capped summit of Mount Baker is the prominent peak on the Skyline Divide and makes a breath-taking backdrop for my son’s picture.

I must say that the hike down didn’t seem as far but was fairly steep.  A couple of young 20-ish women flew by us, running down the trail. I surely would have tripped up if I had tried it. Even so, we were back at the parking lot before we knew it.

The Skyline Divide trail is open year round although the best time to go is in the summer and early fall.  I frankly can’t imagine making my way up that slippery slope during the rainy season.  And I would certainly be sure to check on the road condition during the winter and spring months before driving up.  The hike is a favorite among locals and visitors so expect company whenever you go.  Once you’ve taken it you’ll understand why it’s so popular.  It’s not likely that I’ll be going again this season, but it will be on my list for a repeat visit next summer.

Season Short and Sweet at Artist Point

Artist Point at Mount Baker is closes today, Tuesday, Oct. 16 for the winter season.    This popular scenic spot is located at the very end of Mount Baker Highway, State Route 542 and provides a 360-degree view of Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker, as well as access to a variety of trails.

At more than 5,000 feet above sea level,  the Point is usually buried under snow and closed October through June.  This year, Artist Point opened in late July, which is fairly typical.  With snow already in the forecast for the mountain, Mount Baker National Forest Park officials are closing the gate to the area.  Visitors will still be able to drive up to the Heather Meadows and Mount Baker ski lodge portion of the route but access to the uppermost parking area and the trails that start there will be off-limits.

The Chain Lakes trail at Mount Baker is well-maintained with stepping stones in some places and patches of snow in others. A walking stick is a good idea.

Everyone who lives in the surrounding area knows to scramble up to the top as soon and as often as possible after the state’s transportation team opens the road because the window of access to this spectacular place is short.  In 2011,  the last bit of road up to the top parking was never opened because of the snow depth and a late spring snow.  This year, with a record period of no rain, most of us assumed the top lot might remain longer than usual but the weather changed and so did the plans to keep it open.

I managed to squeak in a hike two weeks ago on Chain Lakes Trail starting out from the trail that leads from the Artist Point parking lot.  It was a stunning autumn day.  Brisk and a bit chilly at the top but once out on the trail, it didn’t take long to warm up, causing me to shed my outer jacket.  Several other hikers had also chosen that day to get out and enjoy the spectacular scenery and weather.  The low-growing huckleberry bushes had turned bright red igniting the mountainsides with color and making the blues of the glacier water and sky even more brilliant.

My hiking companion for the day, Nancy, and I ambled along the well-kept trail with me stopping often to frame out the views in my camera.  We made our way over  past Mazama Lake, crossing cold streams that flowed off from ice that had melted.  At Hayes lake, we spotted the orange tent pitched by two overnight hikers who we had met on the trail with their big, friendly yellow dog.

The view from Iceberg Lake is as breathtaking as the icy, glacial blue water of the lake itself.

The backside of Iceberg Lake, just before you begin the climb up to Hermann Saddle, was an ideal place for lunch.  The sandwiches, trail mix and yes–even an indulgence of chips and cookies–are so tasty after two hours of hiking.  We sat and chatted over lunch then listened to the silence.

When you’re enjoying yourself as much as we were on this day it’s easy to lose track of the time.  But we knew we needed to start the walk out.  The trail itself is only a four to five-mile hike with an elevation gain and loss of about 700 feet. While it’s a good workout, it’s not the most difficult hike in the area.

Instead of continuing down to the Bagley Lakes, we chose to reverse our steps since it was now nearly 3 p.m. and since we had left our car at the top parking lot.  Otherwise, at the end of the trail you must climb back up to the Artist Point parking lot or hitch a ride with someone on their way up.  Since it was already the backside of the afternoon, the likelihood of our catching a ride up was not great.  And, as I pointed out to Nancy, when going back in the opposite direction you don’t see the same things as you did when heading in.

As of October 16, the road to Artist Point at Mount Baker, and access to many of the trails that start there, are closed for the season.

It’s true.  Things looked different on the walk out.  We had turned around and now had an entirely different view than when we had gone it.  And the light had changed as well.  The mountainside was beginning to be bathed in that beautiful, late afternoon sun, with rich, deep color and  shadows.  Wonderful for photography.

We encountered fewer people on the way out.  Many had already hiked back wanting to be back in the parking lot before darkness set in.  By 5 p.m. we were again at the car.  After dumping our gear in the back, we paused to once again take in the fresh, clear mountain air and have one last, long look at the view which we knew would soon be covered over by snow.  Now that the road to Artist Point has been closed for the season, that day lingers in memory until another winter passes, the snow finally melts and reveals for a brief, almost magical, time the beauty that lies beneath.